Study suggests link between autism, pain sensitivity

July 24, 2017 by Phil Roth, University of Texas at Dallas
Credit: University of Texas at Dallas

New research by a UT Dallas neuroscientist has established a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and pain sensitivity. 

The study, led by Dr. Xiaosi Gu, outlines alternations in pain perception faced by people on the autism spectrum and how those changes can affect them in social functions. 

"This provides some of the first evidence that links pain perception to social function in ASD. Most experiments on ASD focus either on the social dysfunction aspects or the sensory dysfunction aspects. But very few studies have looked at them both," said Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 

Published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, the study focused on a very specific aspect of sensory processing—, with a goal of determining what happens in the brains of high-functioning adults with ASD when they anticipate and feel pain sensations. 

The researchers used a stimulation device to deliver mild electrical shocks to the participants, who decided how much pain they were willing to tolerate. The shocks were delivered while the subjects were inside an MRI scanner, so that researchers could measure activity and physiological responses when participants anticipated pain and when they experienced it. 

One of the areas in the brain known to encode anticipation of pain is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). As participants waited in the scanner before receiving a pain signal, researchers could see this part of the brain light up. 

Gu said there were three main findings from the study: 

  • It confirmed that people with ASD are hypersensitive to pain, a finding that has been documented in previous studies. 
  • In a new finding, the study showed that when people with ASD anticipate painful stimulus, their brains generate greater neural responses in the ACC, compared to those without ASD. 
  • In addition, the research indicated that the more brain activity the participants show during pain anticipation, the less they score on an empathy quotient questionnaire. Gu said people with autism often are poor at empathy, which is the ability to understand what another person may be feeling. This result indicates that pain anticipation is related to social impairments faced by those with autism.

She said that a withdrawal from interactions may be a way of protecting oneself. 

"The risks of encountering pain are part of daily life and are normal for non-ASD individuals, but may be overwhelming for autistic people," Gu said. "Therefore, one possible explanation of our finding is that to protect themselves, individuals with ASD may not engage in social interactions as much. You reduce the risk of encountering pain or other sensory experiences that are very normal for non-ASD individuals, but not for those with ASD." 

Based on the study results, Gu said that therapists and experts who work with people with ASD should consider developing interventions and treatment options to help with sensory processing, particularly

Explore further: Research reveals how brain's opioids modulate responses towards other people's pain

More information: Xiaosi Gu et al. Heightened brain response to pain anticipation in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder, European Journal of Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.1111/ejn.13598

Related Stories

Research reveals how brain's opioids modulate responses towards other people's pain

May 30, 2017
Recent results obtained by researchers from Turku PET Centre and Aalto University have revealed how the human brain's opioid system modulates responses to other people's pain.

Can pain increase the risk of dying early?

June 7, 2017
Pain that interferes with daily life, rather than pain per se, was associated with an increased risk of early death in a recent analysis.

Low tolerance for pain? The reason may be in your genes

April 20, 2014
Researchers may have identified key genes linked to why some people have a higher tolerance for pain than others, according to a study released today that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual ...

Fibromyalgia and the role of brain connectivity in pain inhibition

October 1, 2014
The cause of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome is not known. However, the results of a new study that compares brain activity in individuals with and without fibromyalgia indicate that decreased connectivity between pain-related ...

Meaning of brain scans for 'pain' called into question

April 25, 2016
Patterns of brain activity thought to show pain responses have been called into question after researchers from UCL and the University of Reading saw such patterns in rare patients born without a sense of pain.

Study shows spinal cord stimulation reduces emotional aspect of chronic pain

March 17, 2016
Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have shown that patients who have chronic pain can reduce their emotional response to the pain through spinal cord stimulation.

Recommended for you

New insights into the way the brain combines memories to solve problems

September 19, 2018
Humans have the ability to creatively combine their memories to solve problems and draw new insights, a process that depends on memories for specific events known as episodic memory. But although episodic memory has been ...

What your cell phone camera tells you about your brain

September 19, 2018
Driving down a dark country road at night, you see a shape ahead on the roadside. Is it a deer or a mailbox? Your brain is structured to make the best possible decision given its limited resources, according to new research ...

Neuroscience of envy: Activated brain region when others are rewarded revealed

September 19, 2018
How we feel about our own material wellbeing and status in society is largely determined by our evaluation of others. However, the neurological underpinnings of how we monitor the complex social environments under conditions ...

Plasticity is enhanced but dysregulated in the aging brain

September 19, 2018
They say you can't teach old dogs new tricks, but new research shows you can teach an old rat new sounds, even if the lesson doesn't stick very long.

The 'real you' is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want

September 19, 2018
We all want other people to "get us" and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a "real me". But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple ...

Use of electrical brain stimulation to foster creativity has sweeping implications

September 18, 2018
What is creativity, and can it be enhanced—safely—in a person who needs a boost of imagination? Georgetown experts debate the growing use of electrical devices that stimulate brain tissue, and conclude there is potential ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Aug 01, 2017
@bubba the pseudoscience idiot
in open, therefore anecdotal, trials
that is the worst bullsh*t attempt to lie about evidence and trials i've ever seen from anyone!
LMFAO

this is a demonstration that you don't know how medical trials work
or even how the scientific principle works, for that matter

more to the point: it's patently false as there is absolutely no evidence anywhere from any reputable source

https://en.wikipe...oscience

Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be scientific and factual in the absence of evidence gathered and constrained by appropriate scientific methods.

Pseudoscience is often characterized by the following: contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories.

reported for fraud

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.